The Carpetbaggers in many ways sums up the situation of Hollywood in 1964. The studios wanted to make “adult entertainment” (as much as anything as a way of competing with television) but they still didn’t really have the nerve to do so. And they were still partly hamstrung by the Production Code, which was clearly becoming more and more irrelevant but still could not be entirely ignored. So it’s a movie that tries desperately hard to be racy and moralistic at the same time. It’s a great recipe for camp, a quality this movie provides in abundance.
It’s based on a sin, sleaze and sensation bestseller by Harold Robbins (an author pretty much forgotten today, but who churned out a whole series of massively selling potboilers, despised by the critics but adored by the book-buying public). The novel was in turn based loosely on the life and career of Howard Hughes, a subject of endless fascination to both Hollywood and to the authors of bestselling potboilers.
In the 1920s Jonas Cord Jr (George Peppard) is a young man whose life is dedicated to drinking, gambling, the pursuit of women, general reckless living and (most importantly of all) making his father’s life as unpleasant as possible. His father owns a moderately important chemicals company that is about to become a very important chemicals company indeed thanks to a new invention called plastic. Jonas’s stunts and his taunting of his father finally drive the old man to a fatal stroke. Jonas finds himself in almost complete control of the company, and also discovers a taste for entrepreneurship that borders on the obsessive. He is driven by his own private demons to pursue success regardless of the cost.
His empire grows to include a major aircraft factory and eventually a film studio. It’s never enough for Jonas.
His personal life is complicated by his relationship with his stepmother Rina (Carroll Baker). Rina is even younger than Jonas, and was originally his girlfriend until his father persuaded her to abandon the son in favour of the father. But Jonas Jr and Rina have remained close, perhaps a little closer than a son and a stepmother ought to be. In fact a whole lot closer than a son and a stepmother ought to be. Once the old boy is out of the way Rina is anxious to welcome Jonas Jr into her bed, but Jonas has other ideas. He takes a perverse pleasure in leaving Rina’s lusts for him unsatisfied, and he makes a rather unlikely marriage with Monica (Elizabeth Ashley). She seems like the sort of woman who will suit him, a flapper who won’t tie him down emotionally, but once they’re married she turns domestic on him, and wants to be a real wife.
Meanwhile Jonas’s mentor and only real friend, a colourful ageing cowboy named Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd in his last movie role), has not only landed a job in the movies, he’s become a major cowboy star. He’s also shacked up with Jonas’s stepmom. When Nevada runs into trouble with the studio Jonas rescues him by taking over the production of his most recent movie. He’s not only hooked by the movie bug, he also comes up with the bright idea of making his stepmother into a movie star. Stardom encourages Rina’s own taste for reckless living and sets her on a path to self-destruction by excess. More plot complications ensue, Jonas ends up buying the studio outright, and then takes a high-class hooker and turns her into a movie star as well.
The ending is the kind of thing you get in Hollywood movies of this era, an attempt to wrap things up neatly while providing a suitable moral lesson, but the whole movie is so camp that the ending doesn’t really matter at all.
Jonas himself is a slightly equivocal character. He’s portrayed as something of an emotional monster, and he’s frighteningly ruthless, but he has an energy that we’re clearly meant to admire, and he has odd almost whimsical moments of generosity. And we do eventually get an explanation for his emotional deadness. In keeping with the general spirit of the movie, the explanation is delightfully half-baked and convoluted and unconvincing. It does at least attempt, with moderate success, to make him more than just a one-dimensional monster of ego and selfishness.
At two-and-a-half hours it’s a long movie but director Edward Dmytryk ensures that things never get boring. The spectacular sets, wonderful costumes, the period trappings and the vintage aircraft provide a continuous visual feast, all filmed in suitably lush Technicolor. It might not be tasteful, but who cares? Vulgarity is what this film needs, and it has vulgarity in glorious excess. Like drunken actresses swinging from chandeliers (definitely one of the highlights and who better than Carroll Baker to play a scene like that).
Alan Ladd was not in good shape (his alcoholism finally killed him before the movie was released) but his performance is rather good. George Peppard plays Jonas as a man perpetually on the brink of either exploding or imploding, and his over-the-top performance works perfectly. He delivers some rather embarrassingly overwrought dialogue with impressive conviction. Peppard plays Jonas as a monster with an odd edge of vulnerability, a man clearly trying desperately to overcompensate for something that he’s lost somewhere along the way. Robert Cummings is almost unbelievably sleazy as shady agent Dan Pierce, and Martha Hyer is fun as hooker-turned-star Jennie Denton. Elizabeth Ashley as Jonas’s wife is the weak link, but the script is probably more at fault than her acting.
But inevitably it’s Carroll Baker who steals the picture. No-one could play this kind of role better, and she provides the perfect mix of glamour, sex, desperation and perversity. Rina is an unlikely character, but Baker brings her to life and makes her completely believable. She dominates every scene she’s in, and manages to be utterly deplorable and strangely likeable.
The plot is of course both absurd and silly, although it’s difficult to imagine how you could do a story based on Howard Hughes that wouldn’t seem absurd and silly. The movie succeeds because absolutely everybody involved in it went outrageously over-the-top. Everything is too much, from the music to the dialogue to the whole look of the picture, and this is a case where too much of everything is exactly what is needed. A true camp classic, and enormous fun. They don’t make ’em like this any more. Unfortunately the DVD is out-of-print but copies can still be found with a little searching, and if you’re a genuine aficionado of camp you’ll fund the search more than worthwhile.